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Loot points to troops' poverty

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 23, 2003

MIAMI - Members of an elite Colombian counterguerrilla unit were on patrol in the jungle last month when they stumbled upon underground containers stuffed with more than $10-million in cash.

The money was believed to be proceeds from rebel kidnappings and cocaine trafficking. Instead of reporting the loot to their commanding officers, the soldiers split it. The 180 men each allegedly walked away with $60,000 or more.

Officials became suspicious after dozens of officers and men from the army's Company B and Company D of the crack 6th Mobile Brigade mysteriously went AWOL or resigned their commissions. Top military brass also began hearing reports about soldiers holding wild parties with expensive whiskey and prostitutes.

One group of 85 soldiers took over a brothel in Popayan. Others bought expensive new cars.

A joint army and police manhunt is under way in Colombia to round up the missing troops, and Colombians are wondering whether to blame poor military discipline or low salaries.

Forty-two soldiers have been arrested, including three officers, 16 noncommissioned officers and 21 enlisted men. Arrest warrants were outstanding for 105 others.

The scandal, dubbed "the robbery of the century" by one local newspaper, comes at a crucial time for the Colombian military, which is attempting to build a new professional image in its decadeslong war with rebel groups and drug traffickers. In the last three years the United States has supplied Colombia with more than $2-billion in mostly military and police aid to help Colombia fight the drug war.

The security forces have been plagued by financial and human rights scandals. Last year 71 members of the antinarcotics police were investigated after $2-million in U.S. aid vanished.

On April 18 the soldiers were patroling deep in rebel territory in the southern jungle of Caqueta province. They were supposed to be looking for a mass grave of rebel victims, officials say.

The men uncovered the cash while negotiating a jungle minefield. A sergeant stepped on a land mine, and as they looked for more mines they came across wooden containers stuffed with bags of bank notes.

The money was sealed inside underground containers. What happened next remains something of a mystery. Some soldiers spoke out against keeping the money, according to officials. They reached a pact, agreeing to kill anyone who squealed.

The money probably belonged to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which funds its 18,000-strong army by kidnapping for ransom and "taxes" imposed on cocaine producers and drug traffickers.

The area where the money was found, near the town of San Vincente, was a FARC safe haven before peace talks broke down last year.

In angry comments to a radio station, Interior Minister Fernando Londono denounced the soldiers: "These people didn't commit embezzlement, but the crime of treason, betraying their army, betraying the faith of Colombians, betraying the honor of Colombia."

Many Colombians, however, say that the soldiers' conduct, while wrong, was perhaps understandable.

Defense Minister Marta Lucia Ramirez blamed the scandal in part on soldiers' salaries. The average soldier makes about $175 a month.

"Colombian soldiers are very poorly paid. This is the sad reality," she said. "We have to be aware that we have a group of men and women who every day are risking their lives for Colombia and really earning very little."

The scandal burst only days after a United Nations special envoy, James LeMoyne, gave an interview to a local newspaper in which he suggested that Colombia's upper classes were not making enough sacrifices for the war.

He pointed out that most of the government soldiers fighting in the jungles and mountains were the children of poor families.

"I have two questions for the upper class of this country to respond to," LeMoyne told El Tiempo. "Are your sons, nephews or grandsons in the army? . . . Who makes the sacrifices in this country when there is combat?"

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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